Good Bye old Germany

Article published on Dec. 2, 2003
community published
Article published on Dec. 2, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The German giant has found itself in a pretty pass. It’ll have to change its ways if it is to return to its former strength – and only then can Europe reap the benefits too.

In “Good Bye Lenin” there is a classic scene. Alex, the male protagonist of the film, and his girlfriend Lara, a young nurse from Russia, are sitting in the middle of a dilapidated building, which the bulldozer has just left. They’re smoking a joint and watching the stars.

But dismal though this building is, there are also a lot of new things about it. The young Berlin crowd, who gather around Alex and Lara, try to make the best out of their situation and turn the ruins into a party atmosphere. You see bizarre, spotted figures, which lark about in the rubble - the whole scene is full of life. It’s crazy but somehow funny too. And while the camera gradually pans away and leaves the two young people alone, you notice how accurately this image reflects the situation in Germany today. Wherever you look, the old Federal Republic models of society have been given up and crafted into a new German identity.

A mixed bag

The stereotype of a mighty Germany holding Europe in its sway must now be dropped for good. The Germany of carefully tended allotments, of big shiny cars and rich tourists is long gone. Today Germany is more varied, multicultural and exciting than most of its neighbours are prepared to admit. The country is something of a mixed bag: with a rich South and a poor East. Situated at the geographical heart of Europe, and boasting low living costs, Berlin attracts young people and artists from all over the continent and is one of the most happening capitals around. Despite Conservative opposition there is also a general realisation that Germany has become an immigration country. More and more third generation immigrants are pushing their way to prominence in German public life – Turkish comics like Kaya Yanar now have their own TV programmes. Viewing figures for this and other comedy programmes are high. Germans can laugh again, even about themselves.

Gigantic problems

In building on past failures Germany risks burying its former glories. The only gigantic thing about modern Germany is its problems. Once Europe’s economic master, it is now her whipping boy. The welfare system of the 60s and 70s still needs to be paid for: the German giant has overindulged and must today tighten its belt. It has let the developments of the modern world economy pass it by, and is only very slowly pulling itself back together. Its efforts at reforms are lethargic and prolonged. Interest groups, be they trade unions or employers, want to protect what they have and have been an obstacle to progress for years. All of which makes one ask: is Germany on the brink of collapse?

In economic terms no-one should fear Germany any more. And what about the famous German national pride? Here there is indeed some cause for concern, as shown not just by isolated scandals such as the latest anti-Semitism affair surrounding MP Hohmann, but also structural social trends like the high percentage of people from the far right in the new Federal Länder. The spectre of Germany’s past still haunts the country. And yet the French, Italians, Dutch or Czechs need not fear Germany any longer - and not just because the German national team is just a second class act these days.

What’s happened to all the lofty ideals?

”Germany has learned from its past”. No sentence was and will be uttered so frequently and insistently by the political classes. And few sentences sum up the political reality so accurately. The country has much to be grateful to its visionaries for - be they Adenauer with the ‘Westbindung’, Willy Brandt with his ‘Ostpolitik’ or Helmut Kohl, who managed to keep the reunited Germany in long-standing alliances. But they all had to fight against considerable resistance within society before they could reach their goals. Unfortunately such visionary strength passed Schröder and Fischer by. This chancellor is a poker player and no visionary, and even the famous “Humboldt speech” by his Foreign Minister was more about raising personal profile than anything else. And so Germany’s visions for Europe have gradually fallen by the wayside. And yet they’re more necessary than ever because it shows that Germany has to overcome the challenges faced by western nation states in the 21st century together with its European partners: changes to the social system, immigration and the looming battle behind pluralistic societies and religious extremists.

That’s why we want to turn back to Alex and Lara. The future belongs to them. Their film “Good Bye Lenin” has been a big hit in Europe. Over a million French people have been to see it and in the UK it’s the most successful German film ever. And it’s even been nominated for the European film prize.

Briefly – Europe is delighted by this new Germany with all its problems and messes. This new generation, which will take over from the post-war generation of Schröder and Fischer one day, is a more obvious part of Europe than any other generation before it. If young Germans greet each other with a “Hi” and leave each other with a “Ciao” then maybe they can finish off what Adenauer, Kohl and Schröder started – binding economic strength and a healthy national awareness with European visions. But to do that Germany must not just find its way back to its former strength with new means but it must also leave behind much of which has become so dear to it in the past. So we’ll just sign off by saying – “Good Bye, old Germany. Bienvenue l’Europe.”